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The 5 Best Rotator Cuff Exercises

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Matthew Smith

Staff Writer


Most people have little knowledge of their rotator cuff until it starts to hurt, but the rotator cuff is one of the most important muscle groups in the body and strengthening it can help you to improve your bench press, rows, pull ups, deadlifts, and many other movements. In this article we are going to show you five of the best rotator cuff exercises to help you strengthen your shoulders and protect you from injury.

What Is The Rotator Cuff?

You may be under the impression that rotator cuff is a name for a specific muscle or joint, but actually it is the name of a group of muscles and their tendons. There are four muscles that make up your rotator cuff, all of these muscles are what is known as scapulohumeral muscles. These muscles are:

  • Infraspinatus muscle
  • Supraspinatus muscle
  • Teres Minor muscle
  • Subscapularis muscle

The main function of the rotator cuff is to keep the head of the humerus bone in your shoulder socket. This allows you to rotate and extend your arm above your head. If you were to reach for a high shelf your rotator cuff would be used to raise your arm. The rotator cuff also offers greater stability of the shoulder. This is very important for exercises such as the bench press as the more stable your shoulder is, the more weight you can bench. This is one of the reasons why so many bodybuilders and powerlifters pay attention to their rotator cuff.

The Benefits of Training Your Rotator Cuff

There are three main benefits to training your rotator cuff muscles:

  1. Training your rotator cuff muscles will help improve your posture. Conversely, poor posture can actually lead to rotator cuff injuries [1]. A weak rotator cuff will lead to a reduction in stability around the shoulder. This will in turn affect your posture while sitting, standing, but in particular when moving or performing exercises. Strengthen your rotator cuff muscles, and you will improve your posture.
  2. Training your rotator cuff muscles will reduce your risk of injury. The rotator cuff is crucial during so many movements that it is hardly surprising that strengthening the muscles that make up the rotator cuff would reduce your risk of injury. As mentioned above, it will improve your posture which is very important when it comes to reducing injury risk, but the added stability will reduce the risk of both acute and chronic injury.
  3. Training your rotator cuff will improve your training. By stabilising your shoulder, stronger rotator cuffs will allow you to lift more weight during most exercises. The more stable your shoulders are, the better you can perform each repetition. This is going to be most notable during upper body exercises, but a strong and stable rotator cuff will also help you with front squats and deadlifts.

Exercise #1 Face Pulls


The face pull is perhaps the greatest shoulder protecting exercise there is, it should be part of every person’s gym routine regardless of goal. While the face pull primarily targets the rear deltoid muscles, it also targets the infraspinatus muscle and teres minor, which you will recognise as two of the four rotator cuff muscles.

To perform the exercise, you want to grab yourself a cable station and use a rope attachment placed on a high setting. Grab one handle in each hand and walk backwards, the attachment should be high enough so that the rope attachment is at least in line with your shoulders. Keeping your elbows high throughout, pull the handles towards your face. Depending on your mobility, try and bring the centre of the rope as close to your face as possible.

Pause when you can no longer bring the handles back anymore without leaning backwards, and then slowly return the rope to the starting position. You can also perform face pulls from a kneeling position which can change the angle and is great for taller people. If there is no cable station available, you can use a lat pulldown with a rope attachment instead.

Exercise #2 Reverse Fly


There are many ways to perform a reverse fly, you can do it with a cable machine, on a bench, or as in this example you can do it standing up. This is another exercise that targets the external rotators that make up the rotator cuff (infraspinatus and teres minor).

To perform a standing reverse fly you will need a light dumbbell held in each hand. Bend forward until your torso is at a 45-degree angle with chest pointing towards the floor. Push your chest our and pull your shoulder blades back. Hold this position and bend your arms slightly.

Bring the dumbbells together so that they are underneath your chest, take a deep breath and then with arms still bent pull your arms apart as if they were a pair of wings. Pause when your arms can no longer travel backwards without you leaning, and then return the dumbbells to the starting position.

Exercise #3 Dumbbell Scaption Raise


This exercise is a little more unusual and much less well known than the previous two exercises. It also targets all four of the rotator cuff muscles with particular emphasis on the supraspinatus muscle. For those keeping count that is three of the four muscles of the rotator cuff covered by these three exercises.

The scaption raise is sort of a hybrid of the dumbbell front raise and dumbbell side raise. Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand. Turn your arms so that each dumbbell is turned outwards. Raise your arms upwards and to the side. This exercise is kind of difficult to explain without watching the video. One way to describe the finishing position would be as if you were holding a large picture frame at the top. But instead you are holding a dumbbell in each hand.

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Pause at the top and then return the dumbbells back to the starting position. Try and keep a slightly bent arm throughout, just like you would during a reverse fly.

Exercise #4 Overhead Shrug


While this exercise may get you some funny looks in the gym, it is actually a perfect rotator cuff exercise. If you remember from the beginning of this article one of the main functions of the rotator cuff is to allow you to raise your arms above your head, and the overhead shrug is a great example of this. The exercise should be done with a barbell, most likely with no weight on it.

Press a barbell up in the air so that it is above your head and your arms are locked out. Use a wide grip, but not crazy wide. Your arms should be in a nice Y formation. Once you are all in place all you have to do is shrug upwards while keeping your arms straight (that’s the difficult bit as you’ll naturally want to bend them). Pause at the top and then return to the starting position with arms straight throughout. This could be done with dumbbells if you are not strong enough for a barbell, but balance may become an issue.

Exercise #5 Push Up


Our last exercise choice is nice and controversial, because push ups as well as bench presses are often blamed for injured rotator cuffs. Truth is though that bad technique is responsible for injured rotator cuffs. Performing push ups with flawless technique will actually strengthen the rotator cuff. Which makes sense right?

Bicep curls strengthen biceps but can also cause bicep injury if performed incorrectly. If you want to strengthen a muscle then you need to work it, and push ups work the rotator cuff. In fact, the more unstable the push up, the more it will work the rotator cuff (think single-armed push ups). But while an unstable push up may work the rotator cuff more, it also increases the chances of being performed poorly and causing injury. That’s a judgement call on your part. We’re just going to focus on perfect push ups here.

Place your feet together and place your hands on the floor at about shoulder width apart, the closer your arms are together the more your rotator cuff will be targeted, but the harder the exercise. With arms straight your shoulders should be directly over your hands and there should be a straight line starting from your tiptoes to your shoulder.

Now you need to start lowering your chest down to the ground, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your sides (think about how you would throw a punch, you wouldn’t stick your elbows out at 90 degrees would you?). When your chest is almost touching the ground, you need to start pushing the chest back up to the starting position. This is the difficult bit. Breathe out as you go and stop when your arms are straight again. Congratulations, you’ve just learned how to perform a perfect push up.

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